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17 July 2017updated 16 Sep 2021 4:50pm

The most powerful woman in Brussels: who is Margrethe Vestager?

The European commissioner for competition is taming the tech giants.

By Xan Rice

Visitors to the office of the European commissioner for competition are often surprised by its decor. Instead of the vast mahogany desk favoured by many top bureaucrats in Brussels, there is a modest black workstation in the corner.

On the light-wood floor are rugs, a long, narrow table and blue-grey sofas. The walls are adorned with art, including a modernist piece featuring the words “love, colour, revolution, by the people” and another with cloth butterflies made by Tibetan orphans. Numerous framed photographs of Margrethe Vestager with her family – her high-school teacher husband and their three daughters – complete the welcoming, living room feel. Almost.

On a table near the window is a white fist with the middle digit raised. Vestager, 49, calls it “the Fuck Finger”. It was a gift from a Danish trade union when she was deputy prime minister and pushing through welfare cuts.

The sculpture reminds her that hard decisions will always upset some parties – such as Apple, which Vestager ordered last August to pay €13bn in back taxes, a ruling that the company’s CEO, Tim Cook, called “total political crap”. Or Google, which was fined €2.4bn on 27 June for manipulating search results to favour its own services. Or Facebook, Gazprom, Fiat and the governments of Ireland and Luxembourg, all investigated by Vestager’s office for their business practices.

By targeting some of the world’s most powerful companies, Vestager (pronounced Vest-ayer) has become one of the most prominent and popular EU bureaucrats. Politico recently described her as the commission’s “standout performer and communicator”.

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The directorate-general for competition’s role is to regulate commercial activity across the 28 member states and enforce the EU’s vision of a fair market. Its 900 staff are tasked with investigating mergers, cartels and state aid for companies, such a tax breaks. In deciding which cases to bring and how to settle them, Vestager has become a kind of arbiter of what is fair in the 21st century. She believes that the largest benefits for society accrue from a well-policed economy – and that some big companies, especially from Silicon Valley, are abusing their power.

The zeal with which Vestager has approached her job has led some to complain that she is on a moral crusade. She often uses biblical terms to explain her decisions – invoking Adam and Eve when talking about greed, for example. Considering her upbringing, that should not be a surprise.

Vestager grew up in the small town of Olgod, near Denmark’s windswept west coast. Her parents were Lutheran pastors who served the community day and night. From them Vestager learned the importance of engaging in society, if not socialising – to this day, she dislikes chit-chat. After studying economics, she entered politics at the age of 21, working for Radikale Venstre – the Social Liberals – a small party that was co-founded by her great-great-grandfather and often plays a key role in coalitions. By the age of 29, she was running two government ministries, education and ecclesiastical affairs.

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Vestager was admired in Denmark for her principles and steel – Sidse Babett Knudsen, who played the fictional prime minister Birgitte Nyborg in the television series Borgen, used Vestager as one of her models. Yet her political career seemed to be drifting by 2011, when the conservative government called an election. Although Vestager backed the government’s decision to slash unemployment benefits – the Social Liberals are fiscally conservative – she supported a left-wing alliance opposed to the cuts. When the coalition won, she was rewarded with the position of deputy prime minister and the economic and interior ministries.

Seeking to explain the necessity for austerity, she used the phrase, “That’s how it is” – a remark seized upon by opponents who said she lacked compassion. But Vestager refused to back down, and later  she used the same phrase nine times in an important speech.

She also used wit to disarm her rivals. When the male-led opposition criticised her spending plans as “small”, she said that she was wary of taking judgements about size from men, and that from a woman’s perspective the effect was more important. The media dubbed her “sultry Vestager”. But she also cultivated a more folksy image: the doting mother who bakes bread, knits woollen elephants and cycles to work.

When Danish prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt appointed her to the European Commission in 2014, several cases against the tech companies were under way. Yet Vestager pursued them with greater vigour than her predecessors. Although she describes herself as an Apple and Google customer, she is wary of the Silicon Valley giants’ reach even in her personal life. On her two mobile phones, she keeps the location tracking turned off. Her preferred search engine is DuckDuckGo, which does not customise results.

Vestager stresses that she is not biased against tech firms, and the next few months will give her opportunities to show this. She is expected to announce two major decisions: on whether Bayer’s £50bn purchase of Monsanto will stifle competition, and about Luxembourg’s tax relationship with McDonald’s. 

This article appears in the 12 Jul 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Maybot malfunctions